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Supreme Court Rules for School District in IDEA Case

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Parents who challenge their children's education plans under the federal special education law have the burden of proof in due-process hearings, the Supreme Court has ruled.

The court, in a 6-2 decision on Nov. 14, held that whichever party brings such a challenge to an individualized education program under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is the one that must prove its case. So school districts would bear the burden in cases in which they challenge an IEP.

But even Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote the majority opinion, acknowledged that "as a practical matter, it appears that most hearing requests come from parents rather than schools."

"Absent some reason to believe that Congress intended otherwise, … we will conclude that the burden of persuasion lies where it usually falls, upon the party seeking relief," Justice O'Connor said.

Jerry D. Weast, the superintendent of the Montgomery County, Md., school district, which the parents of a special education student had sued in the case, said the ruling in Schaffer v. Weast (Case No. 04-698) was "a victory for special education teachers; they're the ones who are better off by this decision."

The ruling means that teachers will ultimately not have to spend as much time on IDEA proceedings as they do now, he said.

The parents at the center of the case, Jocelyn and Martin Schaffer, had sought to enroll their son Brian in the 139,000-student Montgomery County district. But they disagreed with the district's plan to place their son, who had learning disabilities and speech-language impairments, in a middle school setting with classrooms that were larger and with less access to intensive services that they believed Brian needed.

The parents instead placed Brian in a private school and sued the district. Though they later accepted a placement in a district-run high school with a special learning center, they sought compensation for the private school tuition and related expenses.

An administrative judge ruled that the evidence in the case favored both sides equally, so the case hinged on the question of which party had the burden of proof under the IDEA.

A U.S. District Court judge ruled that the school district bore the burden of proof. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., ruled that the burden should fall on the party bringing the complaint.

Court Divided

Lawyers for the Schaffers contended that a family is in a weak position to challenge a school district's stance on a child's placement in special education, because of the district's greater access to expertise and legal services.

But Justice O'Connor described the many procedural safeguards established for parents by the IDEA. She observed that the core of the statute is the cooperative process that it established between parents and schools.

The Schaffers "in effect ask this court to assume that every IEP is invalid until the school district demonstrates that it is not," Justice O'Connor said. "The [IDEA] does not support this conclusion."

She noted that Congress clarified in its 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA that school districts may be the ones seeking a due-process hearing over a student's IEP, such as when they wish to change an existing plan but the parents do not consent, or if parents refuse to allow their child to be evaluated for special education.

Justice O'Connor's opinion was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, and Clarence Thomas.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent arguing that school districts generally have the "bigger guns" in such disputes, in the form of resources and information.

"It bears emphasis that the vast majority of parents whose children require the benefits and protections provided under the IDEA lack knowledge about the education resources available to their child and the sophistication to mount an effective case against a district-proposed IEP," she said.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer issued his own dissent that said that because the federal special education law was silent on the burden of proof, the issue should be left for each state to decide based on its own laws or rules for due-process hearings.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. did not participate in the case. His former law firm, Hogan & Hartson in Washington, represented the school district.

Speedy Resolution

Michael J. Eig, one of the lawyers representing the Schaffer family, expressed disappointment with the ruling.

"This is going to make it a bit more difficult for parents of disabled kids to make a case on behalf of their child," he said. "As great and significant a Justice as O'Connor is and has been, I think she unfortunately didn't appreciate that the protections she talks about are largely protections that exist before the due-process hearing."

He said that parents often accept individualized educational programs for their children with disabilities but then change their minds after observing that those plans are not working in the classroom. Under the decision, parents now have an uphill battle to change such plans if districts don't agree, he suggested.

But Naomi Gittens, a lawyer with the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Board Association, which filed a brief supporting the Montgomery County district, said, "We're pretty pleased with how the case came out."

Ms. Gittens praised Justice O'Connor's decision for supporting the collaborative nature of the task of developing a plan to educate a child with disabilities and for recognizing that Congress "took very careful measures to even out the field" for both parents and school districts.

The speed of the decision, issued less than six weeks after the case was argued before the court on Oct . 5, surprised legal observers. Some attributed that dispatch to Justice O'Connor, who is known for her speedy turnaround on opinions that she writes. Justice O'Connor has announced her retirement and plans to leave the court as soon as her successor has been confirmed.

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